Lock-up: What Behind the Mass Incarceration Across the Nation?

The question has been raised in different venues by sundry individuals. Where have all the black men gone? Various reasons have been put forth, but there is one explanation that most responders choose to ignore, argues author Michelle Alexander. In her recently released book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the civil rights litigator-turned-author answers the question - head on.

From the onset, Ms. Alexander answers the question. They have gone to jail. In The New Jim Crow, she points out that young black men are disproportionately ensnared in the criminal justice system and provides a critical overview:

The United States now has the highest rates of incarceration in the world ... In less than thirty years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase ... The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C. our nation's capitol, it is estimated that three out of four black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods, can expect to serve time in prison. Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities across America.

Moreover, the sentence does not end upon release from prison. Now encumbered by a criminal record , these young men find themselves subject to forms of legal discrimination and permanently locked out of mainstream society. An individual with the label of 'felon' is subject to employment and housing discrimination, denial of food stamps and other forms of public assistance, forfeits the right to vote, and is excluded from jury service. An immigrant with the label of 'felon' not only faces the criminal sentence, but is also subject to immigration detention then deportation to the country of his/her birth.

And why are these young black men so disproportionately ensnared in the criminal justice system? Ms. Alexander debunks the notion that racial disparities can be explained by rates of drug crime - since usage and sale of illegal drugs are similar across racial and ethnic groups. Rather, she views mass incarceration as a form of social control - racialized social control, to be precise - resulting in the creation of a permanent undercaste. She declares that this time, "the drug war is the system of control."

The notion of caste - or undercaste - is nothing new. The author points to the cyclical nature of racial caste in America noting, "It is fair to say that we have witnessed an evolution in the United States from a racial caste system based entirely on exploitation (slavery), to one based on subordination (Jim Crow), to one defined by marginalization (mass incarceration)."

So where do we go from here? The author lays out options or guideposts for consideration for those interested in dismantling mass incarceration. But Ms. Alexander prefaces it with a cautionary note, warning that "any racial justice movement, to be successful, must vigorously challenge the public consensus that underlies the prevailing system of control ... The new caste system, unlike it predecessors, is officially colorblind. We must deal with it on its own terms."